A good 20-minutes into this miniature diorama of a loser’s life, the anti-heroine, gamine kleptomaniac Eleonore (Eleonore Hendricks), is being tutored impatiently by an acquaintance (Wayne Chin) in the fine art of table tennis. After excoriating her for poor technique and an unserious attitude, he attempts to demonstrate proper backhand. With a flick of the wrist, he inadvertently flings the bologna sandwich he’s been noshing onto the sidewalk.
Cut to a few sad, mayonnaise-smudged slices of meat. Reverse shot of deflated look from her companion, as if it had been his last meal on death row. Dejected and empty-handed, he mutters, “Go away! Just go away!”
It’s a moment of high sympathy between audience and supporting character, giving voice to our very thoughts. Director Josh Safdie has been poking and prodding, cajoling and teasing, baiting the audience with hipster hijinks, daring us to judge Eleonore by our own, oh-so-conventional ethical standards.
The plot, such as it is, follows sticky-fingered Eleonore through a punishing daily routine of compulsive filching and snatching, which are as natural to her as breathing. Her booty is comprised of a litter of kittens, a mutt (PETA take heed), some grapes (doesn’t everyone pilfer these?) a few purses and finally, when disheveled puppy dog Josh (Safdie) shows up, a Volvo station wagon with which to casually ferry him home to Boston. (Well, she’s already playing the game of “see which car fits these keys from that handbag I took” when he all-too-coincidentally arrives).
At times the film strains credulity, as in the fact that newbie Eleonore learns to drive the stolen car virtually in real time, and some of her victims seem painfully gullible for New Yorkers. In addition, one wonders how anyone could be charmed by such a soul-sucking bore.
In the end, we are grateful that the film’s slight length affords us scant time with this distaff criminal drag. Give me a tormented Jean Genet any day over this low-rent affectless Winona Ryder (from the klepto angle) with her empty opaque eyes and childlike mien.
The film’s centerpiece, the Boston detour, is another liability. It’s also a dead end, as Josh’s futile overtures serve only to highlight Eleonore’s rudderlessness, inability to connect and suffocating alienation. She tells him she has no plan for when she returns to the city. After a purse-snatching gone wrong (“I just wanted to look in her bag!”) she winds up in the hands of some pretty goofy police officers with tricky handcuffs.
By the time an interlude with a polar bear occurs, we’ve given up connecting the dots. The film hasn’t earned its moment of surrealism, for we haven’t learned the first thing about Eleonore, apart from her neurosis. The cheat leads to an abrupt conclusion, the film dropping to the ground like a plane with its wings sheared off, at a mere 70-minutes.
Safdie wears his influences clearly on his sleeve. There are nods to French New Wave, but a boyish, aimless, insouciantly amoral heroine does not the next Godard make. The press kit namechecks Scorcese’s Mean Streets, and shades of Cassavetes appear in the amphetamine camerawork, naturalistic style and lo-fi jazzy score. However, Safdie and his cameraman create scads of New York atmosphere all their own. Most of the scenes do in fact take place in the street (with a total of two in apartment interiors). One can practically inhale the manhole miasma and feel the under-collar grime of the hapless lead.
Though clearly narcissistic, Eleonore is more cipher than sociopath. None of her shenanigans are particularly destructive, but The Pleasure of Being Robbed is more about the reactions of the folks around her (when she interacts with them, we feel like we’re coming up for air) than it is any kind of cohesive portrait of a pathology. Unfortunately, the film wants to be simultaneously cute and gritty, adolescent and adult. These respective qualities ultimately cancel each other out and, like its protagonist, the film becomes a big old blank.
The DVD Extras feature several short efforts from Red Bucket Films, the Boston-based team responsible for The Pleasure of Being Robbed, which further explore Safdie’s fetishes for Volvos, zoos and gorgeously bad skin. Let’s Go to the Zoo again stars Safdie as an inexplicably loaded hitchhiker picked up somewhere in upstate New York by a woman and her son in, what else? A Volvo station wagon! Their limited adventures together include an aborted dine’n’dash.
There’s a second, delightful short, There’s Nothing You Can Do, in which Safdie’s brother Benny turns as a disgruntled, besuited passenger who is ejected from a New York bus for bitching at a mother (Hendricks again) to quiet her caterwauling baby. These films share a loose, improvisatory feel with the main feature, but go down easier in this format. Also included are a few obligatory outtakes and a “Musical Commentary”, a surprisingly unique jam session featuring The Beets along with members of the cast and crew. When used, this device actually makes the film considerably more fun, giving it the feel of an extended music video.